You can’t judge a game by its first two hours, but you can fault it for making a really poor first impression.
Despite carrying the “baggage” of being a JRPG and competing with Mario, Link, and Pikachu for attention, the Xenoblade Chronicles series has become yet another successful Nintendo franchise, with both the original Wii title and its spiritual successor Xenoblade Chronicles X earning both critical acclaim and commercial success (or at least as much commercial success as a Wii U title can). This success earned the series a place in Nintendo’s vaunted first-year Switch lineup, as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was given a spot beside Super Mario Odyssey in the company’s 2017 holiday lineup.
I’ve never actually played any of the Xenoblade games, but I recently got the opportunity to observe a friend go through the first few hours of gameplay, and…honestly, it could have gone a lot better. I understand that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a huge, ambitious game that needs to deliver a lot of information during the opening episodes, but it drowns the player in so many tutorials and cutscenes that it honestly feels like you’re watching a movie rather than playing the game.
Some of my specific thoughts on the game:
- The game promises to offer an open-world experience, and while it certainly looks the part (the graphics are sharp and detailed), the first few worlds felt more like the sandboxes of Super Mario Odyssey than the vast expanse that was Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There are a lot of restrictive obstacles and no way to traverse them (Rex jumps higher than Link, but lacks his climbing skills), and the area layouts felt more linear than they should have been. With games like Skyrim and Breath of the Wild setting a higher standard for “open-world” games, I’m not sure XC2 qualifies.
- The amount of breaks in the action for tutorials and cutscenes is just aggravating. It felt like we spent at least 50% of our gameplay time sitting around watching things happen. There were even several moments where a long cutscene ended, the player was allowed to walk about fifty feet, and then another long cutscene ensued. Why even give control back to the player if they would barely be allowed to move? I know there’s a lot of data to digest and story to tell in the beginning, but there had to be a better, more-engaging way to deliver it all.
- Given all the cutscenes we had to watch, the good news is that they were at least fairly epic and entertaining (although the voice acting didn’t always match the intensity of the scene, and was sometimes drowned out by the background music). The character design thus far feels like a net positive, with unambiguously good and evil characters that generate sympathy and/or emotion as they interact. I just wish they didn’t repeat combat phrases so often in battle: If XC2 were more popular, Pyra’s “Our emotions are in tune!” line would have become the next “arrow to the knee” meme by now.
- Combat here is a strange mix of Secret of Mana, Miitopia, and the Mario & Luigi series, and it’s not terribly satisfying. The fights occur in real time, and both players and enemies can move freely about the battlefield without restriction. Basic combat involves drawing your weapon, walking up to an enemy, and pressing A to start automatically attacking it. Basic attacks are fairly slow and don’t require any user input, but these attacks will charge up your character’s “Driver Arts,” or special moves that deal extra damage or produce other effects. In turn, using these Arts charge up your character’s final ability (which can be charge up to four levels), and unleashing it requires you to press a button at a certain time for maximum effect. (There are also ways to chain attacks together between different party members, but we did not encounter this in our playthrough.) In theory, battles are a delicate choreography between Drivers (playable characters) and their Blades (weapon manifestations with different elemental types and abilities), but in reality, you’re mostly sitting around waiting to hit buttons at the right time.
- The controls for this game are surprisingly loose, and there are more technical issues (especially with respect to collision detection) than there should be. Aerial movements (either jumping or falling) are annoyingly floaty, and make the few small platforming challenges that you encounter a real pain to complete. We also witnessed a few bizarre moments in battle, with Rex entering auto-attack mode and slicing an enemy despite them being a) nowhere near Rex on the ground or b) high above Rex’s head.
I wasn’t playing XC2, but if I had been, would I have been motivated to keep going? To be honest, I’m not sure: I’ve always been a sucker for cool stories and good character design, but this combat system would have made me pull out what little hair I have left. For the moment, I’m filing this under the same category as Kirby Battle Royale: It’s not interesting enough to pursure further, but I don’t have enough info to offer an offical ‘buy’ or ‘don’t buy’ recommendation. My Switch game budget will be going towards Dragon Quest Builders instead.